Introduction: How Does Photography Build Bridges?
I moved to Northeast Minnesota in 2013 and have been deeply rooted and enamored with the region’s people, culture, wildlife, and natural resources ever since. From my personal experiences and observations, I began to notice a gap between researchers, natural resource professionals, and the public they serve. This gap at times manifests itself as public distrust, abuse of public spaces, and popularly perpetuated myths and misnomers (see Figure 1). Between 2015 and 2019 I began to seriously develop my skills as a nature photographer and visual storyteller. Simultaneously, I was pursuing a career in natural resources, which began as a naturalist at Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center. I worked with students K-12 for two years and investigated ways to use photography to foster in young people a sense of land stewardship and an appreciation for nature. Shortly thereafter I embarked on a journey as a forestry/wildlife technician first for a small county land department and then for the U.S Forest Service over the next five years. There, I developed an appreciation for the many challenges of managing public land, taking into account multiple uses (recreation vs generating revenue), sustainability, and threats associated with climate change (invasive species, disease, shifting species ranges, etc). When I joined the Project Dragonfly program in Spring 2019, I knew early on that my Masters program in Biology would focus on bridging the aforementioned gap by marrying my growing repertoire of interdisciplinary skill sets including education, storytelling, land management, and photography. This portfolio chronicles my achievements in this graduate program through a series of reflections on projects I administered.
Figure 1: This collage depicts the disconnect between the public and natural resource management agencies in my community, Minnesota. One private landowner sports a yard sign (above, left-most image) in their front yard along highway 61 which reads "DNR [Department of Natural Resources] = Do nothing right". A simple google search reveals many news headlines (above right) about natural resource controversies in the state as well.
Through this adventure, my work as an artist and graduate student has explored the intersection of photography with wildlife research, environmental monitoring, resource management, conservation, and education/outreach. I strive to tell stories with my images-- about sustainably managing natural resources, and how citizens and scientists alike can work towards enhancing the diversity and resiliency of the landscape of my local community and beyond. According to professional nature and wildlife photographer Carlton Ward, practicing this form of art is also known as conservation photography, which is defined in his words as, “photography that empowers conservation” (Ward, 2008). When I first began taking images I wasn't thinking about how I could use these photos to build upon one another or use them for the greater good; mostly, the images sat on my external hard drive. Through my journey, I learned that making visual content is only the first step in the creative process. Photojournalist Chris Linder explains that the real responsibility and level of commitment comes after the fieldwork; how those images are then used to effect change is a critical piece in uplifting conservation (iLCP, 2020). I now put my images to use by leading workshops, hosting presentations, working to get stories published in reputable magazines and news sites, installing photo galleries in public spaces, and through informative posts on social media.
The photojournalism I practiced during my time as a graduate student has appeared in many forms (see Image 1, for an example below). Along the way my images accompanied published articles featuring researchers’ efforts, allowing those projects to connect to larger audiences. I constructed photo essays on my professional website to shed light on conservation issues within the State of MN and elsewhere (see Video Clip 1 below). I also applied for a grant and hosted an in-person educational gallery at a state park visitor’s center lobby for four months, reaching thousands of members of the public. I have seen people respond to my images and stories by wanting to share stories of their own, explore photography, and even by engaging in more conservation activities. A study by Farnsworth (2011), asserts that professional conservation photographers can reach students through their images and have real impacts on their learning.
Image 1: This image of a mountain lion was captured on my remotely triggered DSLR camera trap. It appeared in multiple published stories about a controversial topic: cougars (Puma concolor) coexisting in the state of Minnesota. The publications included the Duluth News Tribune, the Northern Wilds Magazine, the Thunder Bay News Watch, and the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer Magazine.
As part of my quest to bridge the gap, I felt that it was important to investigate the way that images are a tool for environmental educators, researchers, as well as land managers. This involved looking at social media as a channel to deliver educational messages. A study by Di Minin et al. (2015) concluded that social media data can play an important role in conservation science by allowing researchers to identify threats to biodiversity as well as generate ways to engage people in action. Hanisch et al. (2019) contend that photographing the natural world enhances people’s knowledge, awareness, interest, and emotional attachment in regards to biodiversity loss. Similarly, Seppänen & Väliverronen (2003) suggest the importance of visualizing threats to biodiversity through photographs, “which highlight[s] the tension unfolding between the threat of extinction and human activity”.
With the Project Dragonfly tenets of inquiry, community, and voice in mind, I realized that a crucial step in bridging the gap between the public and the scientific community would be to have them work together collaboratively. This is where citizen science comes in. A study by Schuttler, et al. (2019) suggests that citizen scientists, including young students, can contribute to real-world research, verified by professionals. The data that volunteers help to collect can be used to answer applied management questions as well as connect those people to wildlife (Parsons et al., 2018). Citizen scientist participation can take several forms; do volunteers help with data collection (contributory) or project design (collaborative) or both (co-created) (Bonney et al., 2009)? In the last semester of the program, my work culminated in a final project where I explored how trail camera volunteers are recruited and how they contribute to real-world conservation or wildlife monitoring projects. The graduate coursework I accomplished during this program has allowed me to form meaningful ties, connect with new audiences, and develop new skills. Throughout this portfolio, I will reference the names of different class projects, one of which is called the Inquiry Action Project (IAP). For our graduation requirement, we were tasked with completing three IAP's, where we used inquiry to explore an issue of our choosing and also developed a set of actions ("action component") using the insights of our project to benefit social and ecological systems in our community.
Photography and Environmental Education
Trail Camera Workshops Connect People with Nature
Implementation of environmental education curriculum has a strong power to connect people to the natural world and foster an appreciation for nature. Motion-triggered cameras are a popular method of surveying biodiversity (Steenweg et al., 2016), which is especially relevant in an age where global biodiversity is in decline due to a variety of factors (climate change, habitat destruction, over-harvesting, poaching, etc). Camera trap technology is increasingly accessible and affordable, with people of many different backgrounds able to experiment with its use (Brown & Gehrt, 2009). One lesson I developed, called the "Issues in Biodiversity" (IBD) project, “Selfies with Citizens: Remote Cameras at Tettegouche State Park”, sought to formalize a curriculum for a trail camera workshop; directed at members of the public of all ages. I have been experimenting with trail cameras for years and using them in programs (see Image 2), although I had never formalized a lesson plan. It was rewarding to finally have a product that could be handed to other organizations and instructors to replicate.
In a culminating project called the "Community Leadership Challenge" (CLC) project, “A Window to the Wild: Remote Camera Workshop for Gathering Partners", my goal was to take the previous IBD lesson and adapt it to a different audience & venue. I connected with Andrea Lorek Strauss who is an Extension Educator of the department of Fish, Wildlife & Conservation Education at the University of Minnesota Extension. Andrea was putting together a conference for the "Friends of Minnesota’s Natural Resources” which was comprised of mostly adult learners who were either involved in Master Naturalist classes or had volunteered on natural resource projects. My CLC took place on May 15th, 2021. I led a 3-hour in-person field trip and had a total of four adult participants.
I felt that all four students gained knowledge about wildlife tracking and gained confidence in setting and checking a remote camera. I know that the workshop was a success because each of the four participants reached out to me individually via email following the program. One student wrote, “Thank you so much for a fun and informative field trip. Not only did I learn some good tips about using trail cameras, but you also pointed out looking for signs of presence or activity of wildlife - I suggest this for a future Gathering Partners field trip!” (R. Bumann, personal communication, May 26th, 2021). I also received a follow-up request from the group for a peer-reviewed article about monitoring pollinators with trail cameras (H. Einess, personal communication, May 26th, 2021). Furthermore, I was able to see that members of the group accessed the shared google drive folder link that I sent to trail camera images and video from the workshop. I learned that the pre and post-course whiteboard assessment that I had planned did not accurately capture the high-level discussion that the group and I had during the experience. In the future, I would consider recording discussions via an audio or video device.
Social Media's Role in Conservation
With social media, artists and organizations can control their distribution of messaging in the promotion of conservation education and action. One form of visual media employed by conservation photographers is the use of the social media platform Instagram. According to Wang et al. (2020), Instagram has established itself among other top platforms for amateur and professional photographers to share their work. The account holder can post about conservation research, monitoring, education, outreach, or other causes, made relatable to the audience through eye-catching pictures and videos. Through these posts, the artist’s or organization’s followers can engage with the content and establish a discussion (Waters et al., 2009). Additionally, social media provides insights into the public perception of wildlife issues. These web-based platforms can be used as a substitute for traditional methods of gaining information such as surveys or polls (Sullivan Robinson & Littnan, 2019).
In the summer of 2020, I had the opportunity to work with four of my peers to create a product in support of Irbis Mongolia, an international non-profit organization and "EE" partner of Project Dragonfly. The resulting project was entitled, "Conservation Campaign", in which the main focus was the creation of a sample organization website and establishing a social media presence through the development of an Instagram account. We reached out to professional photographers to donate images to the cause as well as past students who had images of their EE experience working directly with Irbis Mongolia. It was challenging to work with an international partner as remote as Irbis, because often their team was in wilderness areas, far away from the internet or phone service. My team members overcame this hurdle by reaching out to partners of Irbis and faculty who knew the organization's goals and operations well. We felt proud to stand by the content we created for Irbis and knew that when they had time to use the tools we made, it would help them advance their mission.
As an emerging conservation photographer, early on I struggled to find best practices in designing my own Instagram posts focused on conservation issues. The content that I originally posted to Instagram relied heavily on trial and error as well as mirroring techniques that I noticed, employed by prominent conservation photographers. I was interested in taking a closer look to see what I could learn from established conservation photographers' use of the platform and the type of content they post; resulting in a project called the "Inquiry Action Project" (which was IAP #2). The use of Instagram to advocate for conservation issues is a relatively new practice and a literature review reveals a general lack of study in regards to best practices to maximize engagement with social media posts specifically under the conservation photography umbrella. I identified the key elements of conservation photography posts on Instagram by established professionals in the field. I discovered different strategies that can be best employed in creating social media posts that engage and facilitate learning, discussion, and action around conservation issues. My action component of this project included an infographic as a best practices guide for budding conservation photographers.
I learned that conservation photographers posted similar content to one another and utilized similar tactics to reach audiences, regardless of their influencer status (number of followers). Completing this project gave me a sense of empowerment that I hope to translate to other budding conservation photographers. Seeing that the number of followers did not change the type of tactics used to connect audiences with conservation issues/initiatives was encouraging and supports the thought that anyone can contribute to this work. Since the project I have been more confident in my content creation on social media and have used insights from this IAP to develop more informative posts that 1) identify threats to biodiversity 2) demonstrate interdisciplinary collaboration and 3) elicit a call to action.
Images Contributing to Real-World Science
Connecting Land Managers with Wildlife Researchers
To connect scientists, researchers, and land managers to the public, I wanted to understand more about how images are used in real-world science. I explored this in a variety of ways. I analyzed an existing dataset of trail camera images (see Image 4) located at carnivore monitoring stations in Carlton County, MN in another "Inquiry Action Project" (which was IAP #1). I was interested in trying my hand at some trail camera dataset statistical analysis and seeing what insights it could offer a small county land department, for which I worked as a forestry/wildlife technician for three years. Over the course of two years, 10 sites hosted trail cameras on land managed by the Carlton County Land Department (CCLD). The protocol was developed by a branch of the University of Minnesota, the Natural Resource Research Institute (NRRI). The data collected on the County sites were lumped into a larger study by the NRRI of the region to yield insights to carnivore assemblages. I met with Michael Joyce, a wildlife ecologist at NRRI, and asked him what sorts of questions they had not answered with their data analysis.
My initial direction of this project was to compare the activity patterns of different carnivore species detected. I found that the challenge of learning a new programming language and statistical analysis tool, “program R”, proved to be too difficult given the time constraints of the course. Additionally, I realized that there were not enough occurrences of certain species to yield statistical significance in their activity pattern overlaps. Through conversations with Michael, I decided to adapt my focus and instead compare the “Shannon Diversity Index” of each host site, taking into account all of the species detected on camera, not just the carnivores. This proved to be a valuable exercise for me, giving me real-world experience analyzing trail camera data and practicing the computation of species richness, abundance, and diversity. I also gained skills in presenting and summarizing these findings in a way that the CCLD could use in the future to inform their land management practices.
I found this study most valuable in its ability to connect two entities that could benefit from developing a lasting working relationship; one a wildlife research organization, NRRI, and the other a local county land management agency, the CCLD. I had a recent conversation with the CCLD forester, Mark Westphal, who informed me that these two organizations continue to collaborate on similar projects to this day, more than two years later (M. Westphal, personal communication, June 17th, 2021). The final IAP report was shared with both entities. For the CCLD, this project showed an example of how its land base could contribute to valuable wildlife science. For the NRRI, the project served as a pilot for recruiting new trail camera hosts on a new land base.
Image 4: Trail camera images from the CCLD carnivore monitoring sites. A road-kill deer leg is hung from a tree in the center of the frame. From top left to bottom right: bobcat, fisher, red fox, and coyote.
Recruiting Citizen Scientists
In the fall of 2021, I had a conversation with Michael Joyce, a wildlife ecologist at the Natural Resource Research Institute who mentioned that he relies mainly on word of mouth and articles featuring his research to recruit trail camera volunteer data (M. Joyce, personal communication, 9/08/2021). He had this to say about his fisher den box project: “I maybe got a dozen or so observations from folks who reached out via email” following a short article about his research effort in the February 2019 issue of the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer Magazine (M. Joyce, personal communication, 9/08/2021). While this is encouraging, more contributors means better data; it will yield more statistical significance in the analysis phase. To provide Michael with solid recommendations for improving his volunteer recruitment effort, I set off to ask other successful projects how they did it. For my third Inquiry Action Project (IAP #3), I chose to compare citizen science trail camera volunteer strategies (see Image 5) to see what insights I could offer.
My biggest challenge with this investigation was the difficulty of discovering projects that utilize trail camera volunteers and also finding a contact person with a working email address. However, I successfully received feedback from 12 out of 25 researchers who completed the form. The platform eMammal proved to be a very helpful site to discover these types of programs. I learned from this experience that designing simple and easy-to-fill-out surveys may improve the response rate. I gained skills in survey design and in coordinating and compiling survey data using the Google Forms platform. An additional benefit was establishing a connection with many new researchers and organizations, which has expanded my professional network for future opportunities.
Image 5: My remotely triggered camera captures this scene of two turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) at a recently harvested white-tail deer (Odocoileus virginianus) offal pile. Images like this are captured by citizen science volunteers for Ellen Candler's "Offal Wildlife Watching" project.
Connecting Communities through Visual Storytelling
In-Person Photo Gallery
In the state of Minnesota, there are over 2,000 native wildlife species and an estimated 16 percent of those have been categorized as Species in Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) (MNDNR, 2016). In another assignment called the "Authorship Leadership Challenge" (ALC) I wrote and applied for grant funding from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council to procure images for a museum-style exhibit at Tettegouche State Park. This project sought to photographically depict the wildlife habitat needs of my community. I proposed to use the funds from this “individual artist grant” to continue my work as a photojournalist; educating Minnesotans about the amazing ecological world around us and our place in it. Specifically, this project would culminate in an art showing at the Tettegouche State Park Visitor’s Center. A portion of the grant funds was for procuring framed images for the in-person gallery. Other dollars would go to the creation of “story cards” in which an interpretive sign accompanied each image to 1) tell the story of the image itself and 2) give insights into the conservation status of the animal or landscape.
Ultimately, the grant I wrote was not selected. I asked for feedback from the reviewers and learned some valuable lessons. One of which is to read the fine print closely when it comes to eligibility of funds; because it turned out that the panel had concerns over my request to allocate grant funds for equipment (a drone) and training to operate it. Another suggestion from the review team was for me to showcase images of my framed and matted art pieces as they would hang in a gallery; which may offer the judges a better representation of how the art would appear in person (my portfolio was composed of digital files). The strengths of my application were that I presented alternatives to the in-person show due to Covid, the quality of my images themselves, and “particularly in how these funds can help [me] grow as a professional artist, taking next steps to present [my] work” (H. Hackett-Rich, personal communication, April 13th, 2021).
I decided to self-fund the project and proceeded by acquiring the art and developing the interpretive signage. I applied and was selected by a panel of judges for a show at the park, securing my spot. The gallery was installed in June 2021 and is still there as of October 2021 (See Image 7). I feel that the art has revealed to the community the amazing resiliency and adaptability of the land, but also its conservation needs. I spent time in the lobby and was able to observe as people interacted with the art and formed dialogues between one another. I was also able to introduce myself on occasion as the photographer and engaged several of the art viewers in conversations. As I continue my work as a visual storyteller, I hope that my images continue to dispel fears or myths that people may be holding on to or at least serve as a way for people to find appreciation for the natural world through art.
Spreading the Word
Inspired by my Project Dragonfly coursework, I have taken several steps (the two linked projects below) to expand the reach of my efforts to educate and recruit future conservation photographers and citizen scientists to the field. In December of 2020, I worked with Nicole Pokorney, Extension Educator for the Center for Youth Development as a panelist in an educational webinar series. The result was a "Deep Dive Series Webinar" in which 4-H members and their families chose from a list of topics to attend. Participants tuned in and I gave an introduction to nature photography, conservation photojournalism, and some tips for beginners. Based on the questions and engagement, I would say I was successful in generating excitement for the field of conservation photography.
In August of 2021, I had another opportunity for outreach when I was approached by a podcast host for the University of Minnesota's "Explore, Teach, Conserve". I was interviewed and recorded by Nathan Meyer and the resulting episode was entitled, “Camera Trap Photography” (click Image 6 below). In the podcast I was able to spread the word about camera trapping and how citizen scientists could get involved. I shared tips and tricks for beginners and offered real-world examples of trail camera projects in my local community to which volunteers could contribute.
Image 6: In this Explore, Teach, Conserve podcast episode I talk with the host, Nathan Meyer, about trail camera photography
and the power of conservation photography. I share ways that people can get involved in citizen science and contribute
their photos to research.
My time in this program has reinforced for me the belief that visual stories have the power to connect viewers with nature, form dialogues, and communicate science effectively (see Video 2 below). Over the course of my graduate school experience, I have had the opportunity to work collaboratively with new people, organizations, and groups on lasting and far-reaching conservation goals. I have grown as a leader in my community by seeking opportunities to connect with new audiences and being willing to take on perceived risks. My network has grown and I have partnered with new local groups and individuals along the way including the Oldenburg Cultural Arts and Community Center, Minnesota 4-H chapters, State parks, and wildlife researchers and faculty from several Universities and agencies. I have also learned from and worked with international partners including the Vermilion Sea Institute, Rancho San Gregorio, and Irbis Mongolia. Photography has emerged for me as an integral tool that compliments my professional career. Being able to document projects visually before, during, and after they are accomplished creates a living record and allows me to tell a story. The images I produce can be used in formal reports for cooperating agencies, in social media posts to communicate to the public, in comparing notes with similar projects elsewhere, and in inspiring others to contribute to conservation. I have already put to use my new graphic design and infographic skills I learned in this program with a recent "year-in report" I developed for the Superior National Forest's 2021 Wildlife Program.
Video 2: A brief overview of my Master Plan
To build on the Project Dragonfly experience, I have several projects which I am excited to launch over the coming years. One will involve purchasing and learning to pilot a drone for aerial photography. I have an idea to visually depict different types of forest harvest from an artistic perspective. Often timber harvests are viewed negatively by the public (Ribe et al., 2013), but I plan to show through images and stories the ecological and management benefits timber harvests provide. Another project which will launch in winter 2021/2022 will be documenting the efforts of wildlife ecologist, Michael Joyce, in his efforts to understand the declining fisher population in Northeast Minnesota and how bobcats play a role (see Image 8). This project, entitled "Bobcat and Fisher Habitat Use and Interactions" will begin with small mammal trapping in the study area to see what kind of prey is available. Then it will transition to live capturing and GPS collaring bobcats and fishers over two capture seasons to track their habitat use overlap and also allow the researchers to locate den sites. I will join field technicians as they monitor habitat use and collect diet samples. This may also involve joining researchers at natal den sites when they measure the offspring of bobcats and fishers. Images that I take will be for use by Michael in accompanying publications and in his media outreach efforts. My goal is to visually tell the story of his research in a way that communicates to the public and legislature what the project seeks to understand.
Image 8: A male bobcat slinks along a rocky outcropping. Wild cats select these locations to deposit scent, mark their territories, and communicate with other individuals. This image is an example of the type of image that I plan to produce for Michael Joyce to use in publications.
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